Outhouse Races and the Star Spangled Banner


One of the most interesting TV programs that ever aired was the Connections series by James Burke in the late 1970’s. He would put together unexpected chains of events to explore the history of technology, such as how Napoleon almost lost the Battle of Marengo because so many of his troops were out foraging, spinning off onto how that would ultimately lead to the emergence of the frozen food industry.

In honor of Burke, I offer this modest sequence explaining how the historical roots of a peculiar redneck-flavored outhouse racing annual event in Pennsylvania’s second to least-populated county relate to the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Aristide Aubert du Petit-Thouars (31 August 1760 – 2 August 1798)

Dushore, PA (population 2,020) boasts the only intersection stoplight in Sullivan County and is home to the marvelous Sullivan Review (the “Sully”) which does exhaustively detailed coverage of local news and eschews national news. Dushore is named (via local pronunciation) for Aristide Aubert Du Petit Thouars, a French minor aristocrat and former naval officer who was part of a small group of French settlers in that part of Pennsylvania, many of whom had fled the Reign of Terror in the 1790s.

The Marquis de Lafayette, among others, had purchased a large stretch of land north of Dushore, including a planned refuge for Marie Antoinette.  (I have wondered if presented with a choice between the guillotine or life in a remote large log cabin on the upper Susquehanna somewhere between Towanda and Wyalusing, whether her majesty would have opted for the chop.)

Founder’s Day Outhouse races. Source: Sullivan review

In honor of this French nobleman on Founder’s Day each August, Dushore stages outhouse races down Main Street. Painted toilet seat art, corndogs, and other things not normally associated with late 18th-century French immigrant culture are also part of the celebration.

Dupetit Thours returned to France at the invitation of Napoleon who understood that British naval superiority was perhaps the greatest danger to revolutionary France.  Like its British counterpart, the bulk of the French naval officer corps had been drawn from high-born families and so had been decimated by the guillotine and emigration. Napoleon issued a pardon and an invitation to receive a commission for those who returned. Dupetit Thours was given command of the Tonnant, an 80-gun ship of the line.

The Tonnant was part of the fleet supporting Napoleon’s ill-conceived invasion of Egypt.  It was anchored immediately behind the massive 118-gun flagship L’Orient in Aboukir Bay.  On August 1, 1798, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson launched his famous daring nighttime two-column attack on the anchored French fleet on August 1, 1798 (The Battle of the Nile).

Explosion of L’Orient. (WikiMedia Commons)

The magazine of L’Orient was hit resulting in a massive explosion that vaporized the ship.  The Tonnant was soon facing enemy ships on three sides.  Du Petit Thours ordered the flag to be nailed to the mast to prevent the colors from being struck.  The Tonnant hammered enemy ships inflicting large casualties.  Dupetit Thours lost an arm and both legs and reportedly ordered that he be stood up in a barrel of wheat (or maybe a barrel of sand or whatever else was routinely spread on the decks before battle to minimize the slipperiness of massive blood spills) from which he directed the battle for several more minutes.

The French navy has named no fewer than six vessels for Aristide Aubert Du Petit Thouars for his extraordinary courage.

The British finally took the Tonnant which was refitted and put into service as the HMS Tonnant. Sixteen years later, it would serve as the flagship of the British force sent into the Chesapeake Bay to attack Washington and Baltimore in the War of 1812.

While the British fleet stood at anchor in the harbor outside of Baltimore, a delegation to negotiate the release of prisoners taken at Bladensburg and Washington came aboard the Tonnant to meet with the expedition commander. They were not permitted to leave because the attack on Fort McHenry was about to begin and the British did not want to give the Americans any intel or advance warning.

‘Defense of Fort M’Henry.’ (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A member of that delegation, a lawyer from Washington DC, stood on the deck of the Tonnant and watched the naval cannon fire and Congreve rockets light up the night sky.  After 25 hours, that giant, deliberately defiant over-sized American flag (30 feet by 42 feet!) was still flying. That lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was inspired to write the lyrics to what would become our national anthem—and he had never even seen an outhouse race.

The bridge disaster in Baltimore has triggered awareness among the wokerati that Key was a slaveholder.  As that fact resonates through the X/Twitter hivemind, it will almost certainly drive a movement to rename the bridge and likely a renewed campaign to dump the national anthem or at least bar its performance as potentially hurtful to systemically victimized listeners.  Will the response from the normals be as ineffectual and pointless as a poorly designed outhouse race entrant or will we revive that inspirational moment when Fort McHenry was the raised middle finger of a nation?

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  1. Ekosj Member

    Outstanding history!

    • #1
  2. Ekosj Member

    Extra shoutout for mentioning the Susquehanna River  near Wyalusing.   As a kid I caught many nice smallmouth bass in that twisty section of river upstream of Laceyville.    Good memories of halcyon days.

    • #2
  3. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast

    Is this article the result of reversing your path of clicks on Wikipedia articles?

    • #3
  4. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald

    I always liked James Burke’s shows.  DVDs are longer available, and used sets run in the multiple hundreds of dollars per season.

    Thanks for this set of connections.

    • #4
  5. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos

    Steve Fast (View Comment):

    Is this article the result of reversing your path of clicks on Wikipedia articles?

    No.  I spend a week or two every summer in Sullivan County.  Researched “Dushore” after a chat with someone at the Sullivan Review back before Google or Wikipedia was a thing. 

    The county population was once more than four times what it is now from active strip mining, lumber, and more farming.  There is an entire “ghost town” at Ricketts which was based entirely on timber.  (Over in Williamsport, “millionaires row” of modest mansions built by fortunes almost entirely from the timber industry.)  I miss the active strip mines because now there are no more slag piles full of fossils.  Down in Northumberland, there is the ceremonial HQ of the American Chemical Society because Joseph Priestly lived there (his sons made good money from logs deliberately floated downriver and collected there) after being chased out of England.  Lots of local history if you look.

    • #5
  6. Headedwest Coolidge

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Lots of local history if you look.

    A few miles north is Camptown, PA which Stephen Foster used as the location for “Camptown Races”.

    • #6
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